American Holidays: Halloween

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11636

Many holidays honor "good" dead persons, e.g., Washington, Lincoln, MLK. There is one holiday that celebrated nasty dead people, and you wouldn't like how! Research the U.S.' own Halloween traditions!


Social Studies

Social Studies
learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Where did Halloween traditions originate? What Halloween traditions are distinctly American? Is Halloween just a fun time to get bags of candy?

Over the years, Halloween has sparked some controversy in the United States.

Some claim that Halloween was spawned out of pagan traditions in Europe, causing many religious groups to protest the holiday. Others say religious groups should not be protesting the date because some of its early history is rooted in Christian events. As you read the history of Halloween, decide whether or not you think the holiday should be frowned upon by religious groups.

If you haven't yet had the treat of visiting the previous Related Lessons in this American Holidays series, head over to the right-hand sidebar.

The history and origins of Halloween stem from a number of old religious holidays. Part of Halloween's origins comes from the Celts, an ethnic group living in western Europe around 1000 B.C. to 390 A.D., when they were overtaken by the Roman empire. The Celts were highly superstitious and religious, believing in many gods. They celebrated the new year on November 1 because they believed this marked the end of summer and beginning of the dark, cold winter months.

As part of the religious traditions, the Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the barrier between the living world and the dead world was broken, allowing ghosts to wander the earth. They believed these ghosts would come to Earth to destroy their crops, so they would create large bonfires used for sacrificing crops and animals. The Celts would also dance around the fires wearing ornate animal costumes. The festivities were intended to make the ghosts happy, and in return, they hoped the ghosts would not destroy their crops. The Celts referred to the last day of the year (October 31) as the Festival of Samhain.

When the Romans overtook the Celtic region, they replaced the traditions of Samhain with their mythological gods and traditions.

During the time of Roman rule, two festivals emerged out of Samhain: Feralia and Pomona. Ferlia was celebrated in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead into the other world. The Festival of Pomona was also celebrated towards the end of October to commemorate the goddess Pomona, goddess of fruits and trees. The symbol of an apple was used throughout Roman history to symbolize Pomona, and it is believed the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples comes from the Festival of Pomona.

Eventually, Christianity began to spread throughout Rome, and on May 13, 609 A.D., the Catholic Pope Boniface IV created the holiday of All Martyrs Day to commemorate those killed while spreading the mission of Christianity. The day was marked by a large feast. A few years later, the holiday was moved to November 1 and incorporated the celebration of the saints into the festivities. This shift also caused the holiday to be changed to All Saints' Day.

In 1000 A.D., the Catholic church worked to rid Europe of the Festival of Samhain — still celebrated by some — by replacing it with a similar holiday that celebrated Christian customs. November 2, the day following All Saints' Day, was declared All Souls' Day, and was meant to celebrate the dead. Like the Festival of Samhain, All Souls' Day was celebrated with large bonfires, costumes, and parades. People began referring to the day before the festivities (October 31) as All Hallows Eve, which led to the name Halloween that is used today.

When Europeans began settling in North America, the celebration of Halloween was limited to certain parts of the colonies. Settlements that were predominately Catholic celebrated the holiday, while Protestant colonies opted out of the celebrations. In the 1800s, with the wave of mass immigration to the United States, Halloween began to spread throughout the United States. Most immigrants came to the United States with nothing, and would dress up and go from house to house on Halloween, asking for food or money. This tradition evolved, and in the mid-1900s, trick-or-treating was implemented nationally in an attempt to reduce vandalism and mischief that often took place on Halloween.

Today, Halloween is still celebrated in many locations. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom also have their own versions of Halloween, but the United States does have its own set of unique traditions and customs.

In addition to trick-or-treating, Halloween is celebrated today with parades, parties, and seasonal food. Religious groups who dislike the pagan origins of the holiday will often hold harvest or fall festivals at their establishments for children.

Does your family celebrate Halloween? If so, share with your teacher or parent what you do on Halloween. Also, consider whether you agree with some religious groups' decision to boycott the holiday. How does the history of the holiday conflict with a religion that believes in one omnipresent, omnipotent God? Discuss your ideas with a teacher or parent.

Now, move on to the Got It? section to continue learning about the history of this popular fall holiday.

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